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'The First Poets'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW15


Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets

By Michael Schmidt. Knopf. 410 pp. $30

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Sing, O Muse, of . . . well, of many things: the anger of Achilles, the long voyage home of Odysseus, the genealogy of the gods. Tell us of how Sappho loved Atthis so long ago and of how Archilochus yearned just to touch Neobulé's hand. Remind us once more, O Muse, of sex-mad Anacreon, of Pindar's praise of champions and of Simonides's epitaph for the immortal dead at Thermopylae: "Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by/ That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

Moderation in all things, said the lawgiver Solon, who was also Athens's first great poet. Good advice, yet it's hard to be temperate about Michael Schmidt's loving, informed and deeply engaging survey of ancient Greek poetry. It would be difficult to imagine a better introduction to its subject. But The First Poets is not, let me hasten to add, a volume of translations. After learning about Alcaeus or Ibycus (who rhapsodized that "Spartan girls/ are naked-thighed and man-crazy"), the reader will need to seek out such collections as Guy Davenport's Seven Greeks, Willis Barnstone's Greek Lyric Poetry, Richmond Lattimore's Greek Lyrics or the many contemporary renderings of Homer, Sappho and Pindar. Schmidt's bibliography does provide guidance, and his text sometimes discusses the varying merits of different English versions. This is not only an exhilarating book but also a useful one. It will teach you things.

Michael Schmidt -- himself an English poet, editor of the magazine PN Review, and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press -- opens with what the Greeks knew about the legendary figures: Orpheus who could charm the dead, Amphion who built a city with his song, Arion and Linos and Musaeus. He discusses the dating of Homer's epics (the Trojan War took place around 1200 B.C., and The Iliad was only written down four or five centuries later), the issues surrounding its authorship (did a different author compose The Odyssey?) and what we know of other fragmentary epics, the Homeric apocrypha and the so-called Nostoi, accounts of the homecomings of the various Greek heroes. He aptly sums up the clear, even tone of The Iliad and The Odyssey:

"Whatever the brutality of the deeds recounted in the poems, what marks them both is their balance . . . an absence of partisanship, a reluctance to moralise. One is tempted, even in this age of relativities, to speak of the poems' objectivity, their insistence on telling it . . . how it was. This involves an absence of sentimentality. What feelings are expressed belong to the characters and their situations, and the poem reports without colluding in them."

Nonetheless, the two epics are fundamentally dissimilar: "Any ten people reading the Iliad closely, or hearing it recited, will have a more or less common sense of what the poem is saying and doing. The Odyssey is different, more 'open' and susceptible to different readings, at literal, psychological, political, allegorical and other levels. . . . This certainly does not make it a better poem. Plato in the Hippias declared that the Iliad excels the Odyssey as much as Achilles excels Odysseus. This has something to do with the form the poem takes, something to do with the protagonists. Achilles is willing to die; Odysseus is willing to live, and to live at whatever cost. Achilles dies young, a hero whose fate is woven early; Odysseus is the hero who survives and suffers. Two types of man, then, and two models of action."

Those neatly expressed comparisons reveal Schmidt's own real power as a prose stylist. He has a flair for the aphoristic -- "Despite all the action of the Iliad, it is in the Odyssey that we find adventure" -- but he can also manage the cliff-hanging Hollywood flourish, as in the concluding sentence to his Homer chapter:

"Odysseus, one of the worst leaders of all time, having mislaid his comrades and taken ten years to cover the distance his fellow combatants had covered in a few weeks, settled down to rule Ithaca, though legend has it that he led one further expedition -- over the edge of the world." Cue the John Williams movie music. (That last adventure, by the way, is recounted in Dante's Inferno.)

Most general readers know at least a little about Homer, but not so much about, say, Stesichorus, one of whose poems builds on the tantalizing legend that the real Helen never went to Troy. (See Helen in Egypt, the modern verse treatment by Hilda Doolittle.) Consequently, most of The First Poets concentrates on the magnificent poetic explosion of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. and then carries the story down to around 350 B.C. and the Alexandrian twilight of Callimachus, Apollonius and Theocritus. Along the way, Schmidt discusses choral verse and monody (solo song), emphasizes the importance of music and dance, introduces us to Greek concepts (moira -- destiny; kleos -- glory; phua -- innate character; dike -- justice) and takes time to describe the physical geography of the cities and islands where his subjects lived, loved and died. He reminds us periodically that what we possess is nearly always mere fragments, though the Egyptian desert and the Middle Easten garbage dump at Oxyrinchus are still turning up "reliques of ancient poesy," including (in 1974) a graphically sexy number by Archilochus about the seduction of a young girl.

One of the great pleasures of The First Poets comes in learning more about figures like Mimnermus of Colophon, described by one scholar as "the first hedonist in Western literature." Mimnermus writes particularly movingly about the passing of youth, as in this excerpt (translated by Richmond Lattimore):

"What, then, is life if love the golden is gone? What is pleasure?/ Better to die when the thought of these is lost from my heart:/ The flattery of surrender, the secret embrace in the darkness./ These alone are such charming flowers of youth as befall/ Women and men. But once old age with its sorrows advances. . . ." Despite the passage of centuries, you can still hear the sigh.

"What matters to poetry readers," writes Schmidt, "is form, prosody and the moments of felt visualisation that stay in mind, whether they come to us in Greek or in English translation." Certainly few translated poets possess the power, even in two-word fragments, of Sappho. Long ago, Plato asserted: "Some say nine Muses. Count again. Behold the tenth: Sappho of Lesbos." Somewhat later the geographer Strabo wrote: "In all the centuries since history began we know of no woman who in any true sense can be said to rival her as a poet." Even now, only the thought of Emily Dickinson or Anna Akhmatova might cause one to alter, slightly, his statement.

Sappho speaks repeatedly of yearning -- "I suffer, I desire" -- and she is unrivaled in depicting erotic torment: "Desire has shaken my mind/ As wind in the mountain forests/ Roars through trees." (Anne Carson brilliantly analyzes Sappho's language of love in Eros the Bittersweet -- do read it.) Yet, as Schmidt reminds us, "it is not the poetry of separation that makes us return to Sappho over and over again. It is the poetry of presence. The world is present, and the beloved. Even when she -- or he -- is far away, the beloved is evoked or conjured. In Sappho, too, poetry does make something happen. The magic in it has nothing to do with hocus-pocus, everything to do with the unaccountable force of love which has found phrases and patterns to keep it real." These poets do keep it real. Asked why he celebrated young boys rather than the gods, Anacreon replied, "Because they are my gods." Hipponax went even further; this laureate of the human body finds himself sometimes "in the privy, on the street, or in a small dimly lit room with a woman even more lecherous than he is." Hipponax's poetry is as explicit as the graffiti in a bus-station restroom; intestinal gas, vaginal secretions and feces make what may be their first appearances in verse. Turn the page, though, and the smoothly politic Simonides is praising tyrants and becoming, as a result, "the first man to make a fortune from systematically selling his art." This smiling public man possessed a remarkable memory and once was the sole survivor when a building's roof collapsed during a great feast: "Thanks to his mnemonic system, he could remember the seating, or reclining plan" and so was able to identify all the corpses.

And so it goes through this ever-fascinating book as Schmidt mixes together legends, bits of poetry, modern scholarship and his own sharp observations. It is a volume of intriguing superlatives. "Pindar is the most careful architect that poety has ever had." Corinna of Tanagra was not only a revered poet but also, according to Pausanias, "the most beautiful woman of her time." Aristarchus of Samathrace was "perhaps the best scholar in antiquity." Goethe's most famous single lyric, "Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" ("On all hilltops, there is peace"), is simply a version of a verse by Alcman of Sardis -- written almost three millennia after its inspiration.

But that's just as it should be, for these ancient bards and rhapsodes continue to thrill us now as they once did their urbane Roman successors, Horace, Catullus and Virgil. Throughout its pages, The First Poets ringingly affirms "the importance of the Greek texts and believes in the possibility of English vernacular access to them." Because Schmidt writes as a true amateur, one who loves, he will make you love these poets as much as he does. As one of Sappho's fragments proclaims, "There will be some who remember us when we are gone." •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company